Calling all anglers…It’s that special time of year for New Zealanders, the annual fishing tournament that spans the entire country, from the southern sub-antarctic Chatham Islands, to the northern sub-tropical King and Middlesex Banks. Contestants in the NZ Nationals can drop a line anyway within NZ’s coastal waters or open ocean out to 200 miles, from a boat, kayak, jet ski, canoe or the shore for a chance at winning a spot in NZ history.
The contest includes just about every species of fish in NZ bountiful salt and tidal waters. The rules are pretty simple really, you target a species and the angler with the most fish of that species in the 8-day contest becomes the national champion for that particular species. Recognition for the heaviest weights are also recorded. Whether you fly-fish for trevelly and kawhai, jig for yellowtail kingfish, drop baits for tasty snapper, or troll for toothy mako sharks, sushi-grade yellow-fin tuna and aerobatic billfish, just about everyone with every kind of fishing predilection has a chance to participate. (Why someone would target an inedible and common species like skip jacks, I’ll never know, but to each his own.) Some species must be weighed to be counted, while other species, weighing is discouraged unless its’ record material and more points are awarded for tagging and releasing. Sometimes, it’s a combination of both, and the Skipper has to weigh up what is worth the most points, before he kills a fish. Some fish must meet line-weight to qualify as an entry.
With the dozens of species targeted, there are ten times as many categories per species, to allow as many anglers as possible an opportunity at achieving a title. For example, the snapper category can be broken down even further into line weight, top angler, top female, top junior, best cross-dressing angler, and the list is further subdivided again into land-based and boat-based fishing, which includes sub-categories for kayaks, jet skis and submarines. I imagine you could just about drop a teeny 4/0 hook in a gold fish bowl, and there’s probably a category for it, although it probably only for the peewee juniors. Kiwis like to give everyone a fair go.
The New Zealand Nationals is the ultimate in bragging rights, mainly because there are no trophies, prizes or awards dinners. But a nice glossy yearbook is printed up with the proceeds of the entry fees, and you might get you name in tiny 8 pt font, in a booklet no one reads. The entry fee is nominal, $25 per angler, which is paid to a IGFA certified fishing club that you must join to be part of the competition. Each club competes against other area clubs as well, again for the bragging rights for top clubs and top boats. The club’s secretary manages the monumental task of recording tag cards and weigh sheets and officially reporting up to the NZ Game Fishing Association, who consolidate the country-wide results.
Before I met Gaz, five years ago, he and his mates, Tai, Swishy and Barry had always fished the Nationals as a team every February, aboard Gaz’s 17 meter power-cat, November Rain, and before that, his previous boat, Mexican Wave. Their target species is and always has been the magnificent Striped Marlin. Over a hundred boats compete annually in this specific category alone. Some are launches, like ours, others tough it out in small trailer boats. The small boats have the advantage of being quick and can reach the fishing grounds in half the time as us. However, launches offer all the comforts of home and a more stable fishing platforms. We also tolerate the poor weather better than tin boats, and have a lot more range.
In previous years, Team November Rain have managed to earn respectable finishes, placing in the top-ten boats for New Zealand. They’ve earned the #2 spot twice, the #3 spot once and Tai was even named top striped marlin angler for one of those years. The most fish they have ever caught in the contest was 12 stripeys over the 8 days, and the least was a disappointing two fish. The #1 spot for the boat, however, has alway eluded us.
We are back in the contest for 2020, after a three-year hiatus. Last year, the weather was foul and we couldn’t be bothered. The year previous, November Rain underwent a major refit and we missed out. Tai and Swish were keen to join the team again this year, but Barry had other obligations, and had to give it a miss. Barry is the team’s competition eater, and not having him aboard this year has freed up a lot of freezer space, less the ten 2-liter jugs of chocolate milk and 20 liters of fruit juice we usually carry for him. The crew arrived to the boat on Thursday evening, laden with frozen home-cooked sea rations, including a lasagna that was too large to fit in the galley’s small oven. The team always packs too much food, but then again, there are no dairies on the corner of the next wave, should you run short of milk, bread or worse, beer.
For those of you who think competition fishing is a nice leisurely day out of the water, think again. We typically fish from dawn to zero:dark:thirty. The days are long, and sometimes the weather is not so nice, especially when the wind is howling at 25 knots, turning NZ seas into washing machine turbulence. We usually don’t drop anchor until 9 or 10 pm every night, slam down dinner and head straight to bed after. To be truthful, marlin fishing is 99% boredom and 1% complete chaos and utter pandemonium.
The 99% boredom consists of driving around the ocean, dragging lures behind us, hoping to find good blue water and raise fish from the deep. Often you are driving back and forth over the same patch of water, kind of like mowing the grass. Someone has to sit and stare at the 4-5 lures splashing behind us, to alert the team if a marlin comes into the gear. Sometimes the fish is interested in what we are offering, other times not. They’ll take a sniff, then peel off to never be seen again. If you are alert, sometimes you can tease the fish into taking the lure by dropping it back to them and then winding it in several times. Other times, you might pitch a tasty bait back to the fish, and hook up where the resin lure will fail. Too often, anglers get bored with the monotony, and pick up a book or drift off to nap, missing an opportunity. Garry is always keen to watch the lures, which allows me too much time to cook, clean, yoga, guitar, sleep, read, write, rinse, repeat.
Nights may be anchored in the safety of a serene bay, or we might be 50 miles off-shore from North Cape. If the fish are hanging out on the remote King Bank, our bedtime options are;
Option 1: Motor 16 miles to the Three Kings Islands, usually arriving around 10 pm, only to suffer through a rough night at anchor in 30 meters of water. The deep water makes for poor holding, so dragging is a real risk and has happened to us before. Worst, the open ocean swells tends to pound the Island’s steep rock face and then echo right back to the boat, causing us to get a double swell, coming and going… Then, its up at 4 am to race back to the fishing grounds for morning bite time.
Option 2: Drive aimlessly around all night on the bank, with crew on two-hour watches, burning fuel, and no one sleeps.
Option 3: Throw out the sea anchor, turn on the nightlight and radar alarm, kill the engines and drift around like a cork on the water, while everyone curls up in their bunks. Sometimes we wake up miles from the fishing grounds, other times we drift in a giant circle and end up right where we started from. Once, the radar alarm alerted us to a passing container ship. Despite the dangers, Option 3 is usually our first choice.
We cast off out of Whangaroa Harbour in the early morning fog, to bee-line for North Cape, a full-day before the official start of the contest. It gives us a head start on reaching the favored fishing grounds, and we can drop our lures in for the contest’s new earlier 6:00 am start time. The early departure from the marina also affords us a day of “practice” fishing, where we can slap our rusty crew back into tip-top competition shape.
Despite the well-deserved stereotypical image of beer-swigging, belly busting, sun and wind-burnt fishermen, competition fishing is a real sport. Every man/woman on deck has to be part of the crack team and has a job to do. The angler might reel the fish in, but it’s the Captain who has to find the fish, the crew has to clear the other gear, the wireman has to leader and coax the fish to the side of the boat (without ripping out the hook prematurely), and the tag man must jab a tag into the fish’s shoulder with precision. A time-stamped photograph of the fish, which confirms the species and the tag placement, is a must to document the catch under the contest new and more stringent rules. The fish should be released unharmed, in healthy condition, which may necessitate special resuscitation techniques (Card-carrying fish CPR certified in a thing). A four-person crew is the minimum amount of people needed to optimize the odds of a successful tag and release.
Our first hook up on our “practice” day was a big mako, who dazzled us with a couple of brilliant aerial flips 20 meters behind the boat. Nobody really wanted to waste energy on reeling in a shark, but finally, after some grumbling, Tai stepped up to the plate and hauled the mako in. After using the gaff to slid the lure up the line, Gaz cut the leader as close to the hook as possible, leaving the shark to swim away with some an extra bit of stainless. Makos are extremely fast and unpredictable, and have been known to leap unexpectedly into a boat. We decided against tagging the fish, as we didn’t want to make him angry and it wouldn’t count anyway in the contest.
About and hour later, the starboard corner reel screamed off. I was in the middle of my post lunch coma, as were Tai and Swish. By the time we all stumbled out on deck, reeled in the extra gear, two-thirds of the 37 kg line had been stripped off the reel. There were no telltale signs that would indicate a marlin, so we reckoned it was probably a big tuna. Swishy geared up and began the long, slow process of retrieving the line and then, suddenly, the big fish broke the surface and began leaping around, doing the marlin dance, 300 meters behind us. Swish’s lucky day!
I wired the 100 kg stripey to the boat, and we all could see that he was barely hooked, just the tip of the barb was lodged into the top of boney jaw. Gaz jabbed the tag into the shoulder with the empathy of an army nurse treating gonorrhea , while Tai played Hollywood paparazzi with the camera. As if by design, the barb fell out and the fish glided away. Practice perfect, we were ready for the real thing, contest starts at 6 am the following morning.
We anchored the eve of the contest in a sheltered bay at North Cape, sharing the sunset with four other boats, including a small yacht that had probably crossed oceans, a dilapidated commercial trawler and two other sport fishing boats. Dawn didn’t break until 7 am, so it seems like the NZ sun didn’t get the memo about the contest’s new earlier start time.
The first morning was dark and overcast, with some tolerable swells and light breeze. We dragged our lures up to our super secret squirrel mark at The Hook, but once we got there, Gaz wasn’t happy with the color or temperature of the water. Meanwhile, we heard reports on the VHF radio of a few random hook-ups in Karikari, 50 miles back to the South. Despite the fact that we had just come up from there yesterday, we turned around and headed back. The overcast turned into light drizzle as we motored south and the swells lightened. The first official day of the contest was a complete bust, not a single fish raised.
The second day of the contest, we tried our luck off of Stevie’s Island, which is within coo-wee of Whangaroa, our home port. A half-day there was fruitless, and Gaz spent a good amount of time dodging the armada of boats out angling for the same fish. No one was reporting much over the VHF, so we gave up and headed back north again towards Kerikeri, reeling in a couple of skippies along the way for live baits. Another night was spent anchored in a serene and peaceful bay. Maybe that was our issue, we weren’t putting in the hard yards, dodging tankers in our sleep on the King Bank.
A change of tactics was determined, we were giving up the ghost on the stripeys. No one was catching them in numbers, and the water at their usual hangouts was green as grass. Gaz decided to head out for deep water and target blue marlin instead. About 10 o’clock, we had a double hook up in blue water. Tai and I both strapped into the fighting gear. Unfortunately, Tai’s fish broke the line shortly after, the drag was set too high, and we lost one our best Bonze lures.
I started in stand-up gear, but had to limp over to the chair after 15 minutes of heavy duty weight with no gains. The next two hours really put the hurt on me. We all reckoned it was a big tuna, possibly a Big Eye, as a few had been reported in the area recently. I struggled to move the fish up the water column, a couple of inches per crank and wind. At the rate I was going, I calculated that the 200 meter of nylon would take about 4 hours. Gaz did his best to help plane up the fish from the deep with the boat.
In my opinion, a marlin, pound for pound, is much easier fish to land than tuna, as marlin will eventually come to the surface of their own accord to have a look at you. Tuna tend to dig down deep and stay there. We all began to play the speculation game, “What if it might be a NZ record, or least a Ladies record?” I suggested to Garry that if it went record weight, he should have it mounted and presented to me as a wedding present. I’m pretty sure he agreed to that.
I could never get the reel out of granny gear the entire fight, which meant twice the cranking to gain the same amount of line as high gear, and when the fish finally bobbed up to the surface, two hours later, we could see the Pakula Smoking Joe and leader wound around the tail, which would explain all the difficulty. The fish was dead by now, drowned by being dragged up backwards from the deep. Tai leadered the big tuna to the side of the boat, and Swish flying- gaffed it. It took all three men’s brute strength to haul it though the door, up the steps and onto the deck. The deck freezer was emptied of a couple of cases of beers to make some room. (Fortunately, we didn’t have to relocate 40 Liters of chocolate milk and juice.) Four of us managed to wrangle the tuna into the freezer, but then, we couldn’t shut the lid, the tail was sticking out. Gaz threw a towel over the tail to try and keep it cool. We headed back towards Whangaroa for a weigh in, still fishing along the way, of course.
After lunch, a lazy blue marlin took a strike at one of the lures, which tripped it out of the outrigger. She then swam over to have a gander at another lure before dropping away. Not long after, Swish reeled in a nice size albacore, which meant it could be offered up to the sacrificial sushi plate, leaving my Big Eye tuna intact for the taxidermist shop. Fingers crossed, the ladies NZ record, according to the 8pt print in the New Zealand Yearbook was 102.25 kilos. Mine would be close. It certainly was the biggest tuna I’ve ever caught and the biggest this boat has seen.
Just as I was writing this, another blue came into the gear, spotted by Tai. This fish was committed and screamed off with the neon yellow lumo lure. Swish harnessed up as Tai and I cleared the gear. It took a good half hour to get the fish close to the boat, but she was smart and would swim alongside the boat, 30 yards out, just out of range, making it difficult to pull her in sideways. At one point, we could see that she was tail wrapped, but she later managed to free herself of the noose The next time she got close, we could see that the hook was just resting around the bill, and not set into the jaw. As long as she was swimming away from us, Swish could stay connected. If she were to turn and face us, the hook would slip right off the bill and we would lose her. It took a lot of skill with boat maneuvering and the leading to keep her facing the right way, swimming away from the boat. Tai had the leader at least three times but had to drop it each time, to avoid pulling the hook off the bill. Finally, after an hour, Tai coaxed her close gently, and Gaz got a tag in her shoulder using a very long reach under water. I snapped some very poor evidence of the event, as the white-washed water obscured the fish. Just as the tag went it, she slipped around the back and swam between the two hulls. The noose around her bill slipped loose, freeing her. It might take some persuading to the club secretary that this was indeed a qualified catch with my shoddy photos of a faint yellow blur underneath the white water.
Two hours later, and we hooked up to another blue. She was a greedy girl and smacked the biggest lure we run, the Black Bart Blue Breakfast, always towed on the short corner. The big girl apparently hadn’t taken notice that she was hooked and the leader was within Swishy’s hands within the first 5 minutes. But she was very green and once she woke up, Swish had to let her go. After a 200 meter run and a few jumps to work off her extra energy, Tai had her back to the boat,15 minutes later. The second attempt at the leader ended sadly with a broken crimp at the hook end. At least we didn’t lose Breakfast.
All this marlin catching (and losing) was eating into the travel time back to Whangaroa, and we were now looking at very late 8:00 pm arrival. Not wanting to lose a possible record for the want of a Weigh Master, we pulled in the gear, Gaz put the ponies into a gallop, and November Rain thundered home at 18 knots. Fish dry out and lose weight the longer they sit around, so it’s prudent to weigh while still fresh and claim the extra couple of ounces.
It took five men to wrestle the big eye out of the freezer and onto the deck. I anxiously watched the digital scale during the crane lift, praying for the magical 103 kg number. An “oh yes” at a 90 kg mark, while the tail was still on the deck, turned into a very loud “F*#! Yeah” as the scale kept climbed, finally settling at 136.8 kg. (You can thank Captain Garry for teaching me to swear like a sailor.) It was more than enough to set the new Ladies record for New Zealand, and only 2 kilos lighter than the National record, recorded just three days earlier at the same club. We joked that if we had shoved the albacore down the gullet of the big eye, we would have beaten the NZ record. (I’m only kidding here, but it’s been known to happen with less scrupulous anglers. It’s these kind of wankers that force the clubs to keep increasing the evidence needed to claim a fish. In big money tournaments, crew members may be required to take lie detector tests to claim the purse.)
We spent some time taking photos, slapping backs and posting on social media, all while the Weigh Master, Laurie, carefully measured all our gear, ensuring we were legally entitled to IGFA certification. The club secretary, Sandy, reviewed the sketchy photos of Swish’s marlin and accepted them, so Swish’s fish qualified as a catch as well. What a nice end to a great day!
Gaz had pre-arranged for the local Smoky to cart the tuna away to the neighboring town of Kaeo, where it’ll be butchered, smoked and vacuum packed, to be enjoyed by friends and family at our upcoming wedding. It’s definitely a cheaper and more ecological option than a professional taxidermy mount, which would have probably spent a few years on the garage wall, before ending up a yard sale, after the next female angler breaks the new record. Fame is fleeting….
We spent the next day driving over the same grounds, now exclusively targeting Blues and Big Eyes. The water had gone off in the 12 hours we were away, and where Gaz had previously marked schools of bait fish and other signs of life, the ocean was now barren. The water temp had dropped as well, and the color wasn’t the right shade of blue. We kept exploring for better signs.
An hour later, just as the water temp creeped up a degree, we hooked into another blue. Tai reeled, Swish leadered, Gaz tagged, I snapped pics, rinse and repeat. This girl was a solid 200+ kgs and was cooperative enough to pose for Instagram with a prominently displayed yellow tag in her shoulder.
We kept searching the following day, but finding blues is like looking for a needle in a haystack. They are solitary creatures, in deep water, whereas striped marlin often hunt in packs, working together to corral bait in the shallows. If Gaz serendipitously drove over a large mark on the sounder, he would cruise back and forth over the mark, trying to tempt the mystery fish to come up and have a taste of the plastic candy behind us. Three other boats joined us in our search, and the banter between the Captains over the VHF was the most amusing action that day, for we had not a single strike.
Thursday morning, we pulled up the anchor, extra early. The VHF chatter the day before had surmised that there was only a morning bite, after which all strikes ceased. I was on point for the rod for the past two days, and had been putting off my morning work out, partly because I was still sore from the big tuna, but mainly wanting to save my energy for fish-fighting. But boredom got the better of me. Of course, ten minutes after I completed three sets of reps with my hand weights, and a few dozen leg squats, something big crashed the lumo lure on the port rigger. Fortunately, it was a fairly easy catch, and within ten minutes, we hauled in a nice yellowfin tuna. Hopefully, this fish might be the clincher to nail the tuna category for me. I asked Gaz to bleed out the tuna, even though it would reduce the weight by a kilo or so, but it wasn’t a record fish, maybe 30 kgs, and I wanted to improve the quality of the meat. On the plus side, there was still room for both the fish and the beer in the freezer this time, maybe even some chocolate milk.
Mid-day, as Sandy, our club secretary, updated the mid-contest results over the VHF, I heard I had slipped into second place in the tuna category, and we learned we could’ve earned double the points for tagging and releasing versus weighing a small tuna. I guess it pays to read the rule book, especially when you start targeting other species. However, I remind myself that we now have a $1,000 worth of Sashimi in our freezer, which helps take the sting our of that mistake.
The yellowfin tuna weighed in at 43 kilos, minus the liter of blood, which was very respectable, and certainly a lot larger than our original 30 kg estimate. It seems as if we had adopted a new benchmark to what was a big fish, after the Big Eye. The Smokey, Dave, was waiting for us again at the weigh station, and had brought along some of the freshly smoked Big Eye, still warm from the cure. Dave carted the yellowfin away, to butcher half for some fresh meat and smoke the rest. I joked that we had so much smoked fish, we’ll have to give it away as wedding party favors. The hell with scorched almonds!
We ate at the fishing club, Swish having persuaded the chef to grill up the two-inch slabs of organically grown Scotch filets that he had squirreled away for a celebration dinner. The steaks were so well marbled, I’m convinced the poor beast died of a heart attack and not the butcher’s blade. After swapping lies with the locals, we headed back to the boat, where some of us spend the night snoring (Swishy) in an otherwise peaceful anchorage.
The blue water had finally pushed in, so Gaz decided we would give the Stripeys another go in the morning, which was a nice, as we didn’t have to travel far and wide, only just outside the harbour. After the morning bite fell off, we would head out for the deep and chase Blues again in the afternoon.
There was one strike and hook up early on, but it fell off at the first jump, before anyone could reach the rod. We tried our hand at live baiting for an hour or so, until a stripey came up and turned his nose up at the anemic skippy flopping around the surface. The boys cut loose the lethargic bait and went back to trolling lures, at the same time in search of livelier sacrificial soldiers.
After lunch, there was another strike at the lures, but this particular fella wasn’t interested in plastic and soon left our smorgasbord in search of a sushi bar. It took a good three hours of trolling to restock the two tuna tubes before we could try live baiting again. On the menu this evening, tuna-tarter in the port corner as the entree, and for the main, sashimi surprise on the starboard side. No reservations necessary.
We never did get out to the deep that day, but the first rule of fishing is; “Don’t leave fish to go find fish” and we had already seen three stripeys that day, which was the most marlin we had in the gear in three days. We fished well past sunset with the fresh baits, but had no drop-in diners. Another day gone, we only have until 4 pm tomorrow afternoon to make something of ourselves. With our two tagged marlin, we are currently running in second place for the nation in the blue category, right behind Stewy, of Kahula. Stewy also caught two blues, but weighing one awarded him a few more points over us. If we can just get one more blue tagged, we might win this thing.
My alarm rousted us up at 4:30 am, two hours before daybreak, our earliest start yet. Just as the sun peeked over the horizon, we crossed the 250 meter mark and the drop off out into the abyss. Gaz was getting serious now, pulling out the big guns, and called Mr. Joe Yee out of retirement. The pearl-headed lure has always been a top performer, but the collector’s market has driven up the value to the point where a loss would be financially and emotionally heart breaking. I took a photo of the lure, just in case we needed to write up his obituary later. Mr Yee was given the spotlight in the center of the spread.
The smoked big eye tuna made it’s debut appearance on the lunch menu, and it was absolutely beautiful, declared by both Gaz and myself, as the best smoked fish we had ever come across. It was decidedly moist, with a delicious pink smoke ring that extended a full 40 cm into the flesh. If you find yourself with more fresh fish than you can manage, I highly recommend you call Dave, the Home Kill Butcher of K.B. Holland & Sons of Kaeo. I think we just might go back to scorched almonds as our wedding party favors.
Today is February 29th, significant for the antiquated custom in which a woman is allowed to propose marriage to her reluctant beau. I tried to propose to Gaz, but he turned me down, saying he’s already promised to someone. Swish has turned his phone off, just in case his old lady, Selena, gets any wild ideas.
One blue showed up late to the party, a full half-hour after the contest ended, and took a gander at the starboard rigger. Swish tried to tease him in with no luck. It didn’t matter that the clock had stopped, if there’s a fish out there, Gaz will stay in the game. We’ll set our sights on the next prize, aiming for the season’s top boat for our club, and will have to battle it out with head to head with Stewy of Kahlua again.
Team November Rain, always the bridesmaid, never the bride, finished a respectable second in the Blue Marlin Category, losing by only by a smidgen of points to Kahlua, not a whole fish. I reckon if we had weighed Swish’s blue, it would have gone 250 kg and that might have made all the difference in our standings. We’re not keen on harvesting marlin, having only taken five fish in the last five years out of the hundreds we’ve caught and released. Our kill rate honestly sits at about 1%, and then, it usually ends up feeding a small village in Vanuatu. Contests sometimes are rigged against the fish, and encourage weighs. It’s my own personal opinion that tag and release should be awarded more points than dead weight. We’ve fished contests before where harvesting a marlin actually counts against you, unless it is certain to be IGFA record weight, and I like this kind of forward thinking. Team November Rain also placed second in the nation in the Tuna category, which was a nice bonus.
I cleaned up in the Individual Tuna category, taking top honors in the heaviest weight category, earning me the title of Champion Angler, and also won the special Carol Atwood Memorial Trophy for most meritorious tuna. My name goes down in 8 pt print, not once, but twice. I guess maybe that makes me the Bride.
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